The names of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies who allegedly shared photos of human remains in the helicopter crash that killed NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter cannot be kept secret, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Court Judge John F. Walter, who is overseeing a lawsuit filed by Bryant’s widow against the sheriff’s department, ruled late Monday that the public has a vested interest in whether agencies that are responsible for investigating and adjudicating complaints of misconduct have acted properly and wisely.
“Although the Court recognizes that this case has been the subject of public scrutiny and media attention and that the Deputy Defendants are legitimately concerned that they will encounter vitriol and social media attacks, such concerns, by themselves, are not sufficient to outweigh the public’s strong interest in access,” the ruling said.
Vanessa Bryant, Kobe’s widow, sued Los Angeles county and its sheriff’s department in September, accusing county employees of having “showed off” photos of the remains of her husband and teenage daughter. Deputies allegedly shared the photos among themselves and with others for no law enforcement purpose, the lawsuit said.
Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, were killed along with seven others when their helicopter went down on the way to a youth basketball tournament in Thousand Oaks, California, on Jan. 29, 2020.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said in a statement Tuesday that the sheriff was “committed to transparency and public safety while balancing the safety of our Department employees.”
It added that it was aware of the judge’s ruling Monday and intended to comply with the order of the court.
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It has previously acknowledged that first responders, including deputies and Los Angeles County Fire Department employees, had taken and shared photos of the victims’ remains at the crash site.
Villanueva has said in media interviews that he had ordered all photos be destroyed. The department has also said that shortly after the crash, Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva sponsored legislation that now makes it a crime for public safety personnel to take and share non-official pictures “of this nature.”
It was not immediately clear if the names of Los Angeles County Fire Department employees accused of misconduct would also be released.
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In an Instagram post in February, Bryant publicly called for the sheriff’s department to release the names of the deputies who were allegedly caught sharing the photos. She said redacting or concealing the names from the public created a double-standard of accountability.
“They want their names to be exempt from the public,” she posted. “Anyone else facing these allegations would be unprotected, named and released to the public.”
In Monday’s ruling, Walter said one of the county’s arguments in attempting to keep the deputies’ names secret seemed to contradict the sheriff’s statements that the photos had been destroyed.
County lawyers had said they were concerned that someone might break into one of the deputies’ private social media or internet accounts and obtain copies of the photos.
“Defendants’ concern that hackers may attempt to seek out and gain access to the individual deputies’ devices to locate any photographs and publish them is totally inconsistent with their position that such photographs no longer exist,” the judge said.
After Monday’s ruling, Bryant thanked Walter and attorney Luis Li in a new Instagram post.
Quoting Li’s comment to the Los Angeles Times, she wrote: “Transparency promotes accountability. We look forward to presenting Mrs. Bryant’s case in open court.”